As the sun set over Northville Downs, Michigan’s last horse racing track, drivers and harnessed standardbred horses warmed up under the golden light one final time.
Inside the building, thousands of people – devout regulars and bright-eyed newbies alike – flooded through the front doors, simultaneously eager and saddened to witness history as the Downs hosted its last live horse race.
“It’s busier now than when they show the Kentucky Derby,” said Beth Coleman of Burt, eyes scanning the packed stands and lengthening lines at the betting booths and concession stands.
Once the No. 1 spectator sport in the country and accounting for nearly $1.2 billion in Michigan, horse racing reigned supreme among gambling practices until other forms of betting opened up, ending racing’s monopoly and leading to its downfall in the state.
Northville Downs survived as the last remaining racetrack in Michigan for years, but even the Downs couldn’t outrun fate. With the property sold and set to be razed later this year, and after a deal for a new location with a neighboring township flopped, the owners are scrambling to find a new spot. Otherwise, horse racing is over in the Mitten.
Coleman and her longtime partner, Ryan Larkin, had been coming to Northville Downs for about 10 years for weekend date nights, sometimes making the drive to watch live races every Friday and Saturday.
Coleman didn’t bet as often as Larkin, and when she did, she just bet on whichever horse she thought was prettiest. Still, she always enjoyed watching the live racing. “It’s been here for so long, it’s just sad that it’s closing,” she said.
Gordon and Diane Gillis of Livonia were regulars at Northville Downs for over 50 years. They’d come for the live harness races on weekends, simulcasting on weekdays, and almost anything in between.
“Fifty years ago on a Saturday night, this is what it was like,” said Gordon Gillis, looking over the buzzing crowd from the third floor. “It was crowded, it was crazy, it was the only game in town.”
The rise and fall of Northville Downs
When Northville Downs opened in 1944, among six other existing or soon-to-be racing tracks in Michigan, betting on horse races was the only legal form of gambling in the state. Additionally, it was the first track in the state to offer parimutuel gambling.
Michigan racetracks thrived throughout their first couple of decades, bringing in 3 million visitors and wagering $260 million a year by the end of the 1960s, but their success halted in 1972 when the Michigan Lottery started and subsequently knocked horse racing out of the lead.
As casinos opened in Detroit and on Native American reservations, more betting was whisked away from the tracks.
Between 1993 and 2001, economic activity from horse racing throughout the state fell nearly 19 percent. Year-round racing and the introduction to simulcasting in 1996 helped to keep the racetracks alive a little longer, increasing wagering by 50 percent compared to 1995, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to sustain the sport.
Online sports betting was the fatal blow. One by one, the racetracks closed – Saginaw Harness Raceway, Great Lakes Downs (built on what was originally Muskegon Race Course), Jackson Harness Raceway, Mount Pleasant Meadows (built on what was originally Glendale Downs), Sports Creek Raceway and Hazel Park Raceway – until only Northville Downs remained by 2018.
Additionally, as industry employment declined and technology usage grew, humans became replaced by machines, leaving only a handful of real people at the Downs to deal with bets and plenty of abandoned betting booths gathering dust.
Now, all that’s left of Northville Downs’ glory days is inside the clubhouse, from the thousands of plastic stadium chairs sat facing towering windows for a clear view of the track, to the rows and rows of television screens broadcasting jockey races from who-knows-where, to the pastel green and blue walls and turquoise-colored tiling reminiscent of the 1950s art deco era, to the floors littered with betting tickets and, of course, the lingering smell of eight decades worth of cigarettes.
An everlasting community
Nonetheless, the track still managed to attract faithful fans of all ages.
Recent high school graduates Easton Schaar and Blake Wilson of Livonia, along with another half-dozen friends, were raised with occasional nights at the racetrack. When they turned 18 and could legally bet on the horses themselves, they started making their trips to the Downs clad in formal wear like refined gentlemen from generations before.
“Every Friday night we would dress up and go bet on the horses. It’s just fun to do. Then whether we won or lost, we’d go buy food after and hang out in someone’s basement and just have a good time on the weekend,” said Schaar.
“We all go to different schools now because we’ve graduated, so occasionally every couple of weeks or so, we’ll all come back here and get together and hang out for the night,” said Wilson.
Alexa Spillman of Canton also grew up attending the races, so when her daughter was born, she passed along the tradition. Now that she’s 16 months old, Spillman holds Elvira in her lap and points out the horses as they run by, causing the toddler’s wriggling body to steady and her smile to widen.
“We’ve been coming for years now and bringing her ever since she was born. Every time the horses go by, she just lights up,” said Spillman. “I wish it was going to stay open.”
The future of horse racing
The 48-acre Northville Downs property is being replaced with a $250 million mixed-development project to build hundreds of new homes, three parks and commercial space. The owners of the Downs, who declined to comment, had proposed to build a new facility in Plymouth Township, but after the idea was met with opposition from the township and its residents, the plan fell through on Jan. 23, leaving fans and harness drivers forced to travel out of state to find the nearest racing track.
“I don’t like it, this one closing. I wish they’d opened the other one up, it would’ve been nice to have a new facility,” said Ed Newman, a Northville Downs regular since 1968 and former racehorse owner. “I’ll go to Ohio a couple times a year, and I’m going to go to Hoosier in the fall. I’ve got a couple of buddies down in Kentucky who run the Red Mile. I’ll travel to go see them; I’m retired, so I can, but it’s hard to travel four hours for a race.”
Newman also said that many of his friends and family in the business began moving years ago in search of a new place to race when the state’s other tracks began closing.
On the last night, each race was filled with cheers: cheers as the horses and their drivers were released from behind the gate, cheers each time the hoard of racing horses passed by on the half-mile track, and even more cheers when a particular horse took the lead and crossed the finish line.
As the owners continued to search for a new location, drivers and horses exited the track and attendees filtered out of the Downs with a bittersweet joy after what was potentially the last race in Michigan, wondering whether the sun would rise again on horse racing.